Special Report: Professionals Helping Prepare For, Study Different Aspects of Grief

FOX 21's Brett Scott Examines the Landscape When it Comes to Getting Through a Tough Time of Loss

DULUTH, Minn. – It’s a topic many shy away from, talking about what happens after we lose a loved one, and are left to live in the physical world without them.

FOX 21’s Brett Scott examines how grief is studied on an academic level, and prepared for with the help of hospice professionals.

“I think that mostly why I’m in this field is because of my mom,” said Shana Flynn, Hospice Social Worker at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth.

This personal experience, helping pave a path to professional success.

“When I tell people what I do, often their response is often, how can you do that work? There are amazing gifts that I receive and the hospice team receives from patients and families,” said Flynn. “It didn’t start where it was easy to have these difficult conversations.”

Flynn also shares her knowledge with social work students at the College of St. Scholastica. Before her professional career, she served as caregiver to her mother for many years.

“Because of what she taught me as far as having difficult conversations, I think that’s helped me learn ways to have difficult conversations,” said Flynn.

Flynn meets frequently with families who have unfortunate decisions to make in the near future.

“We know that up until the end of life, patients can still hear,” said Flynn.

The goal of her work is to get families communicating in the final days and hours before death. She says it plays a major role in grieving after a patient passes.

“One thing that seems to be prevalent is if family members haven’t been able to say those things, the grieving process is much more difficult,” said Flynn.

In many situations, a family member may not have months, days, or hours to prepare.

Flynn says this often results in a rough road ahead when searching for the “The New Normal.”

“Sometimes me just saying, say I love you, or Thank You, that begins the conversation,” said Flynn. “I think it’s important because the patient who knows that they have a terminal diagnosis and they might have awareness that death is near — that’s a very lonely place to be.”

She works often with a specific culture who cares deeply about communication and ceremonies before death.

“Native Americans believe that death isn’t a sad event, that they’re going on to meet their family,” said Flynn.

St. Luke’s Hospital allows spiritual rituals to be practiced inside the hospital after permission is approved.

“They have a great sense of humor, they joke, they have elders that they consult with,” said Flynn.

With her experience, Flynn says those who look to a higher power or spiritual beliefs are often better situated when grief sets in.

“I think that if a person and family have a belief and whatever that belief is, that helps with the anticipatory grief, and it also helps with post grief,” said Flynn.

“Maybe a patient or family who doesn’t necessarily identify with spirituality, they might struggle more.”

Outside of the hospital setting, academic professionals are looking to learn more about how we deal with life after death.

The New Normal, Part One

“As a society we like to keep our distance as well,” said Dr. Mitra Emad, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “We study grief, but we study it from a distance.”

Dr. Emad doesn’t specialize in the academics of grief, but she does deal with it in many ways.

“In some ways we can use to soma, the internal experience in the body, how we experience ourselves from inside our bodies, we can use that to resolve trauma or to work with trauma,” said Dr. Emad.

Academically speaking, Dr. Emad says we enter a liminal stage after the loss of someone special. This results in frequent questioning of ourselves.

Dr. Emad remarked, “Is it socially acceptable for me to still have those emotions?”

Confusion about how to cope and what’s socially acceptable, making it difficult to move forward to the next stage in life after a loss.

“How do we get to that integration? How do we end up being in that space where, it’s supposed to be after grief, right?”

She says there’s no timetable for when grief concludes.

“Grief is with you for the rest of your life,” said Dr. Emad.

The professor studies how we cope in a mindful, health conscious way through the tools our body provides.

“I’m studying how the body can resolve these intense things like trauma,” said Dr. Emad. “What I know about grief is that you can’t titrate it. You can’t take little pieces of it and work with it. You can’t in essence, you can’t control grief.”

This reality is often difficult for us to accept.

“In a society that values physical control, emotional control, control on so many levels, grief befuddles us,” said Dr. Emad.

She says the “light at the end of the tunnel” aspect of grief consists of figuring out what works for you, how to cope with memorable stories, emotional support, counseling, or visits to a spiritual speaker.

“We have very much a society that says you’re supposed to get over it, right? And that’s what the integration part is supposed to look like. That’s not how it looks like with grief,” said Dr. Emad. “We have this inclination to run away from the body when the experience is so intense like grief, but if we can some way come back to the body, rest into it, through acupuncture, yoga, meditation, whatever it might be, it’s astonishing how healing that can be.”

Through the use of yoga, acupuncture, or simply waking up early to catch a sunrise, Dr. Emad says we use what our body is capable of providing us to help move on and adapt without our loved one present.

“What I would suggest is to find your ‘body thing,’ whatever it is that allows you to access that part of your nervous system that smooths, regulates and allows you to relax into who you are and what you are in this new normal,” said Dr. Emad.

As Dr. Emad works to learn more about the process of grief, and how our body responds, Flynn continues to help families prepare to write a new chapter in life, one where loss will be prevalent, and where grief will come and go for decades to follow.

“It’s something about a person knowing their loved one is close to end of life or going to pass away that allows me to ask some of those very difficult conversations,” said Flynn.

Click here if you’d like to get in contact with grief support services offered at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth.

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